With so many families no longer favouring the traditional hot turkey and Christmas pudding banquet, meals that are light and easy to prepare are all the go. So it is no wonder seafood figures prominently on Christmas food shopping lists! Certainly the most stand-out ‘must have’ item these days is the prawn. And we are not talking the raw prawn or one that has already been peeled. It is a freshly cooked, lovely orangy, salty beautifully textured prawn, ready to be peeled and dipped into a tangy freshly made cocktail sauce or soundly doused with fresh lemon juice. There is no doubt that this is a firm seafood favourite for most and readily available just at the right time of year!
Times have certainly changed in Canberra from the days when virtually the only fresh seafood that could be purchased was from a van parked on the corner of Jerrabomberra and Hindmarsh Avenues on a Friday. Now we are fortunate to have a wide choice of outlets, all jostling for the title of selling “the best and the freshest”. Most seafood we buy in Canberra now is fresh, and we have the choice of buying Australian caught fish and seafood, or imports. For some years, all seafood came through the Sydney Fish Markets and although this still happens to some extent, I think criticism of the freshness of seafood arriving this way is probably not always valid.
It is our individual choice what we select, but always remember to read the labels, especially for prawns. There are large quantities brought in from Thailand and Vietnam. They may not necessarily have been frozen, but often they do not compare to our local prawns. Wherever you buy prawns, it helps to know what to look for in the freshest of prawns. If you pick them up by their tentacles, the tentacles should not come away; the eyes should be firm and dark; and the legs bounce back. Do not be afraid of asking to taste, but before you try every prawn in the shop, and you will be spoilt for choice at most outlets, decide if you want sweet and juicy, or salty and firm, and what size. That way you can be directed to the type of prawn that best suits your taste. I like to support the fishing communities along our coast, so I am drawn to locavore food (food sourced from within 150 km radius) but I have a real weakness for sweet and juicy banana prawn which are trawled in the tropics and are perfect for using in cooked dishes. I am also well aware that there probably won’t be enough wild prawns to go around, owing to the ever increasing demand. Christmas is also a great time to buy large fillets of salmon or ocean trout from Tasmania. These are always labelled if they are wild and however you choose to serve, both are versatile and delicious. Wherever you shop, and whatever is your weakness, whether it be crustacean, whole fish, fish fillets or molluscs, read the labels and use your nose to guide you, as fish and seafood should smell only of the ocean.
So, probably spoilt for choice, here are the major players in the seafood stakes this Christmas.
Narooma Seafood Direct
Narooma Seafood Direct will be at Capital Region Farmers Market at EPIC each Saturday until Saturday 17 December and Canberra Southside Farmers’ Markets on Sundays until Sunday 18 December. They will be taking orders for locally caught wild Australian prawns, Narooma lobsters and a wide range of fresh Narooma caught fish including schnapper and tuna. Visit their market stall and have a chat to them about what else they will have available. Orders can be made in person at the markets, by email to email@example.com or phoning (02) 4476 1402. Orders will be delivered Christmas Eve Saturday 24 December from 7 am to 11 am southside at the Canberra College campus and in the afternoon northside at the Carotel, Watson from 1.30 to 3.30.
FishCo is one of the largest seafood sellers in the ACT. With busy and successful markets at both Belconnen Fresh Food Markets and Fyshwick markets, they have now opened a new boutique outlet at Westfield Woden. Their website has their full Christmas shopping hours and I particularly love them because they are open between Christmas and New Year from Thursday 29 – Saturday 31 December. This year FishCo is not taking orders as they will have additional staff on standby, as well as a team of oyster shuckers working daily. However orders will be taken for extra large quantities or items not normally in stock. They expect to have oysters from Narooma, Wapengo and Merimbula on the far south coast, as well as Pacific Oysters from Coffin Bay, South Australia, my favourite Sydney Rock Oysters, and huge oysters from St Helen’s in Tasmania. I mean to experiment with buying unopened oysters this Christmas and putting them on the BBQ. Apparently they pop open and are sweet, fresh and delicious with any sauce. You may still need a bit of assistance from an oyster knife and FishCo has an inexpensive oyster knife for this purpose. And of course there will be a huge variety of prawns. With the available wild catch just not able to meet the demand, advances in aquaculture methods means large quantities of excellent quality prawns are available to fill the gap. These prawns will come from the north of NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory, and all are producing excellent quantities. I particularly like visiting the Fishco store at the Belconnen Fresh Food Markets as it is the closest thing to the bustle and excitement of the Sydney Fish Markets. All FishCo outlets offer free parking, complimentary cleaning of whole fish, free ice (don’t forgt your cooler bags), and free tasting of cooked prawns and oysters. FishCo can be contacted 24 hours a day on 0411 605450.
Ocean Fresh at the Fyshwick Markets is always busy with both the fresh fish section and the popular cafe and takeaway. This year they will not be taking orders as they are confident they will have plenty to go around with prawns coming in from Cairns and lobsters from Terrigal on the Central Coast. From experience I can honestly say that their queueing system works, and works really well. When you arrive, you are given a number and can queue in the shade outside the shop. Customers are only let in as it gets closer to their turn to be served and there is plenty of time to check out what is looking good. Presented with a variety of prawns, you can try before you buy at Ocean Fresh. And if you just want to stock up the freezer for unexpected guests, they have a dazzling array of frozen goods including lobster tails, Alaskan king crabs and a range of fish. Christmas Eve they are open for sales from 4.30 am and close at 5.30 pm. Ocean Fresh will also be open on New Year’s Eve for all your party requirements and the cafe and takeaway will also be open.
The best of the rest:
You can’t miss Sea Harvest at Belconnen Markets. It is always busy and they have an amazing array of whole fish and fillets as well as plenty of choice with prawns and crustacean. This year both the Belconnen and Fyshwick stores will have extended opening hours and busy shoppers will be delighted to know Sea Harvest will be taking orders.
If you don’t want to battle the crowds at the various markets, pop in and chat to your local fishmonger. All regional shopping centres now seem to have good fish outlets and at Christmas, with seafood in such demand and hopefully abundant, even the smaller outlets offer a good variety.
Canberra City: Fresko Seafoods, City Markets, Bunda Street – phone 6262 7540.
Westfield Woden: Woden Fishmarket – phone 6281 6367.
Gungahlin: Just Caught Seafood, Gungahlin Market Place – phone 6255 0333.
Tuggeranong Hyperdome: Ocean Master – phone 6293 3079.
A word about buying seafood at supermarkets. Most big supermarkets have pretty good fish displays and a good turnover. Coles and Woolworths have some clout when it comes to buying in bulk and there are some bargains to be had. But if you are determined to have the very best, make sure you choose carefully and ask to taste prawns or if the fish has been frozen. Whole fish should be firm to the touch and the eyes should be bright and clear.
I won’t venture into the minefield of prices, but we all know they will go up at Christmas. I try to overlook this and just concentrate on what my eyes tell me is the best looking and freshest, so go ahead and buy up big and treat your family. And don’t forget, if in doubt just thrown another prawn on the barbie!
Don’t forget to stock up on fresh unwaxed lemons, preferably fresh from your or a friend’s tree!